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'Freak Folk' Finds a New Frontier

Starless & Bible Black finds a new twist on a fast-evolving subgenre.
Starless & Bible Black finds a new twist on a fast-evolving subgenre.

The Manchester band Starless & Bible Black sounds as if it arrived at this song after spending an intense few days thinking about the limitations of so-called "freak folk." Though there's much to admire about the fast-evolving subgenre, there are also weak spots — the acoustic-guitar strumming patterns that are interchangeable from one record to the next, the lyrics that feel too twee even by folk standards, the way the singers occasionally try to bully listeners into seeing (or feeling) things their way.

"B.B." is the sound of musicians going about things in a deliberately different way, and discovering a kind of enchanted forest in the process. The first minute or so is mostly throat-clearing, as guitarist Peter Philipson and the rhythm section feel their way around a dark studio one chord at a time, conversing over a slow-motion drone. The pulse, when it finally arrives, is a cool breeze from a more delicate era — with hints of cresting jazz polyrhythm but, thankfully, no jazz pretensions.

This proves an ideal launching pad for Helene Gautier, a French singer with a clear and hollow voice. Here, her verses sometimes echo the moody side of Pentangle, and she sings them from a perch slightly above the tangles of guitar murk, with a furtive, birdlike quality. She's coy about it: Even after a horn section appears, Gautier doesn't do much to claim the spotlight. She's happier sliding around and between the various sonorities, sometimes almost transparently, leaving faint trace-paper impressions on the sound. Philipson is the same way: The tune's engrossing instrumental passages rarely contain "solos" in the traditional sense. (This should help differentiate the band from Starless and Bible Black, King Crimson's high-energy 1974 prog barrage.)

After six blissfully unmoored minutes, "B.B." drifts away without demanding much, leaving behind a feeling of tranquility — and the pleasant sense that this more subtle direction might be the next frontier for freak folk.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

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Tom Moon has been writing about pop, rock, jazz, blues, hip-hop and the music of the world since 1983.